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[Editor’s note: Today we welcome Carrie King, a Brooklyn-based chef, writer, and teacher who moonlights on weekends working the stand for a local farmer at a Brooklyn Greenmarket. Over the next few weeks she’ll be schooling us all on how to stop being morons when we shop at the farmers market. And yes, I personally plead totally guilty to every type of idiotic behavior she calls out here.]

Wait a second, is that DIRT on my beets? Yes, and you should get over it, says Greenmarket etiquette expert Carrie King. And don't put them in a plastic bag, either!

By Carrie King

There’s an age-old adage which you’ve probably heard – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. In other words, getting there is only half the battle. Once you arrive, more work needs to be done. As someone who spends each weekend working the stand for a farmer at a local Brooklyn Greenmarket, I can tell you this is as true at farmers markets as it is anywhere.

As I work the stand, making sure the crates and bins are full of vegetables and fruit, answering questions, weighing produce and making change, I have a lot of time to observe. One thing that’s become clear is just how difficult it is for many to let go of the supermarket shopping behavior that’s been insidiously trained into us since our first childhood trips through the gleaming aisles while perched in the kid seat of a shopping carts.

Anytime you make a choice to shop at a farmers market, you’ve done something good. Presumably, your choice to shop at a farmers market means that you have food, farming or environmental-related beliefs or concerns that shopping at the greenmarket allows you to support, or avoid. Maybe you only want to eat organically produced foods. Maybe you are turned on by local and seasonal produce. Maybe you just like the cachet that comes with shopping at the farmers market, or the Saturday morning scene. Maybe you’re a child of the 60’s and see it as a continuation of the fight against The Man. Maybe you just like good, fresh food that was still in the ground a few hours ago. Whatever the reason, it’s valid, so keep it up.

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time at a local Greenmarket, I see a lot of, let’s say, interesting behavior. I’ve pondered this for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that much of it is driven by the subconscious thought patterns associated with shopping for food in a supermarket. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing that you shop at the farmers market to begin with. But it doesn’t end there. To fully follow through on the ideas that motivated and inspired you to leave the supermarket behind for the joys of the farmers market, you may need to shift your approach to shopping. And that’s what this series is about.

First things first: Embrace the dirt.

Farms are, of course, covered in dirt. Dirt is soil. Soil is alive, and it nourishes life. Healthy, living soil allows plants to grow, to flourish. We eat plants, and we eat animals that eat plants. This is the cycle of life, and dirt is at its foundation. Dirt is the lifeblood of the kale you massage, the tomatoes you squeeze, and the melons you sniff while browsing the stalls and stands at your favorite farmers market. The millions of bacteria and micro-organisms alive in that farm’s fertile soil feed and nourish your potatoes until they are golden and buttery enough to be harvested for your stew.

This makes me wonder – Why do I see so many shoppers scowl or flinch when they find dirt on their spinach, or a smear of mud on a zucchini? Sometimes, with a look of disgust, shoppers will recoil from an otherwise beautiful beet besmirched with a bit of dirt, and put it back. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has become clinically and collectively obsessed with warding off dirt. Dirt is equated with bacteria, and the message that has been embraced as truth says that bacteria is bad. So we lather ourselves with anti-bacterial soap in the shower, compulsively sterilize our hands with anti-bacterial lotion, and wash our clothing in anti-bacterial detergent.

Part of the reason why we are so averse to dirt on our food is that as food production became an industrialized, globalized industry and supermarkets became the totally dominant point of distribution for that food, dirt magically disappeared. Nary a speck can be found on the pyramids of plasticine fruits and veggies in the produce aisle. So, over time, we’ve become habituated to the belief that the produce we purchase should be shiny and clean. This has caused us to mentally remove the reality of dirt and farms from the food chain equation.

Come on, admit it – even the most dedicated lovers of farmers market shopping have at some point felt a pang of annoyance when confronted with dirt on an otherwise beautiful squash or cucumber. It’s become an almost involuntary response. We have been conditioned to believe we have a right to pre-washed, crystal-clean produce, and that if it is marred by a smudge of dirt, it is bad.

I propose we get over this. It’s likely that one of the reasons you shop at the farmers market in the first place is to eliminate as many of the links as you can of the chain that separates you from the farm that grows your food. Seeing dirt on your produce is evidence that you’ve done just that. It means you’re getting closer to the reality of what food is – beautiful things to eat, that grow in the dirt that covers our planet. Don’t grimace. Embrace it.

And when it comes to shopping at the farmers market, it seems, where there is dirt, there are plastic bags. Ironically, in one of the more common uses of plastic bags that I see at the market each weekend, shoppers use them to line their own reusable canvas shopping bags, or to bag each item they purchase separately in plastic, to avoid soiling their own beautiful reusable bags.

Look, I understand. It’s annoying to find dirt at the bottom of your precious reusable canvas shopping bag. It’s not easy to clean. You can’t wipe it off with a sponge, and turning the bag inside out to beat the dirt out of it, then sweeping that dirt off your kitchen floor is a hassle. But that’s part of the farmers market experience. You probably didn’t purchase your reusable canvas bag to use as a status symbol (as the New York Times suggested you may have last year), but as a practical alternative to filling your home with disposable bags and burying the planet in plastic. If that is the case, isn’t it counter-intuitive to fill your reusable shopping bag with a whole bunch of plastic bags stuffed with produce? The produce at the farmers market has dirt on it for a reason. Your reusable canvas shopping bag is washable and reusable for a reason. Let’s connect those dots.

Sometimes when it comes to plastic bags, it’s not even about the dirt. A lot of produce is sold by weight, and you want to help the market to function efficiently by making it as easy as possible for the farmer to ring you up and check you out. You fear that if you don’t have all your weighable veggies neatly parceled, the line of anxious shoppers behind you will grow angry and hostile as you pick through your bag, grabbing handful after handful of string beans to throw on the scale, or handing over your tomatoes one, by one, by one.

Or maybe you were a picky eater as a kid, and still today get squeamish at the thought of your eggplant touching your carrots. I can assure you that really, it’s ok.

Or perhaps you fear confusion, and possible confrontation. If, as you browse the stands, you buy string beans and potatoes from one farmer and cherries and kale from another, if each product isn’t neatly stuffed into plastic, and filed away once purchased, will you be accused of stealing? Unlike the supermarket, where security cameras, alarms, and checking of receipts have made us feel we need to be ready to prove our innocence at all times, you’ve probably noticed a different approach at the farmers market – there are no receipts. And no one presumes you’re trying to get away with something sneaky.

Many farmers pre-bag produce like salad greens and baby spinach. This, as so many things, has come at the behest of the convenience-seeking shopper. In my Greenmarket experience, it’s staggering to note how much more produce is sold if it’s pre-weighed, priced, and bagged. As New Yorkers, we famously crave convenience. It’s become second nature to reach for whatever is easiest to grab, unpack, and cook without thinking about the consequences. But it’s also an impulse that likely runs counter to the constellation of causes that tilted you away from the supermarket and into the farmers market in the first place.

Unfortunately, conditioning and convenience often trump good Greenmarket sense. Having said this, for every shopper who says yes to a plastic bag for everything, or grabs the pre-bagged option, there is one who brings their own smaller reusable bags, or Tupperware, or plastic bags that they’ve rinsed for reuse, to segregate their vegetables within their bigger reusable bag. They know they want their stuff separated for any number of reasons, so they take a few seconds to think, plan ahead, and bring their own bags from home. These, my friends, are the champions.

So the next time you visit your favorite farmers market, remember: Embrace the dirt, and leave the plastic bags for the world of the supermarket.


Carrie King is a Brooklyn-based chef, writer, and teacher. On weekends, she works for a local farmer at a Brooklyn Greenmarket. She chronicles her daily food and cooking adventures on her blog A Cook Grows in Brooklyn.

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6 Responses to Greenmarket Etiquette, Part 1: Embrace the Dirt

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  5. Bravo! I can’t believe that anyone is so insulated in the urban anti-bacterial hand gel world, that they can’t deal with a bit of dirt fresh from the farm! I think it further illustrates that kids these days need to get back to playing in the backyard dirt, adults need to spend some time in the garden or park, and step away from their computers/TV/video games!

  6. Sarah says:

    I don’t disagree with any of the points made here, but you might catch more flies with honey. The hostile tone of this piece was so off-putting.

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